Prescription medications can improve the health and lifestyle of many people when used properly as directed by a doctor, but when used incorrectly, can be dangerous or lethal such as a Barbiturate overdose.
Barbiturates are a relatively old class of drugs that were first developed by Germany’s Bayer Laboratories in the 1860s and were widely used during the 1960s and 70s to treat a wide variety of conditions, including sleep and seizure disorders, anxiety, and migraine headaches.
One of the most common forms of barbiturate is Phenobarbital (aka Phenobard) and it was first introduced in 1912 and it continues to be prescribed today.
Most barbiturates are distributed in pill form although some, such as Phenobarbital, are also available in suppository form and an oral liquid. These variations are for the treatment of people with epilepsy and similar seizure disorders.
- It is also occasionally prescribed to people who suffer from anxiety, and in specific cases to help control withdrawal symptoms and regulate brain activity in dependent users.
Recreational Use of Barbiturates
Because barbiturates are rarely prescribed today, many recreational drug users are unfamiliar with the effects of this drug. Some common brand names include Butisol, Luminal, and Pentothal.
Barbiturates are also known as “downers” and they are sometimes taken by people who use cocaine or methamphetamine in order to counteract the excessive effects of these stimulants.
Recent statistics from England and Wales shows that deaths linked to this drug dropped significantly from 2000 to 2010 when compared to the previous decade, however, these numbers rose again from 2011 to 2016.
Celebrity Deaths From Barbiturates
Despite the fact they have been largely replaced by benzodiazepines among both medical and recreational users, barbiturate use continues to be linked to numerous overdose incidents each year, and they have played a role in the deaths of numerous musicians and celebrities.
Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 at the age of 27 from asphyxiation caused by intoxication induced by the sedative Vesparax. Reports indicate Hendrix may have consumed up to nine Vesparax tablets on the day of his death, or the equivalent of 18 times the therapeutic dose.
Like Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe’s sudden death in 1962 was also caused by Pentobarbital – the same drug that actress Margaux Hemingway used to commit suicide in 1996.
The difference between a therapeutic dose and an overdose is slight, and regular users often require progressively larger doses in order to achieve the desired effects because they build a tolerance to the drug.
Some of the common signs of a Barbiturate overdose can include:
- Slowed heart rate
- Slowed respiration rate
- Poor reflexes
- Loss of coordination
- Decrease in bowel or bladder control
Because they are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, Barbiturates slow down many bodily functions, including brain activity, reflexes, and respiration rate which can lead to death. A study published in the British Journal of Anesthesia revealed:
- Barbiturates can cause death quicker than narcotics, even when the respiratory system was depressed to similar rates.
In this study, rabbits were given either Barbiturates or narcotics. While the test subjects were able to recover from severe depression of their respiratory system induced by narcotics, they were unable to recover from barbiturate-induced respiratory suppression . This was despite the fact that it actually caused a less dramatic slowing of breathing rates in the rabbits.
Mixing Alcohol and Barbiturates
Barbiturates and alcohol are both CNS depressants. When users consume alcohol, the effects of both substances “are multiplied and the risk of death increases.”
In 1997, Barbiturates and alcohol were used by the 39 Heaven’s Gate religious cult members to commit what remains as the nation’s worst mass suicide to date. According to the New York Times:
- “The combination of phenobarbital and alcohol that at least some members of a cult apparently took to commit suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, is well known to be a lethal mixture”.